- The Washington Times - Monday, April 9, 2007

LONDON — In the land that gave birth to “Big Brother,” the future has caught up with a present in which drunks, hoodlums, litterbugs and other wrongdoers are being yelled at and lectured to — as well as watched — from lampposts.

Britain has 4.2 million surveillance cameras — a fifth of the world’s total — hanging off its infrastructure, and loudspeakers with microphones are being fitted to them in a government attempt to strike more fear into the hearts of miscreants.

In the northeast England city of Middlesbrough, disembodied voices bark out orders to “pick up that cigarette butt” or “put that candy wrapper in the bin,” shocking people caught on camera in the act of crossing to the wrong side of the law.

Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government is spending nearly $1 million to link microphones and loudspeakers to its vast network of closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras as part of its “Respect” offensive to try to control the burgeoning anti-social behavior that plagues the nation’s cities, towns and villages.

It works like this: When a CCTV camera spots someone breaking a window, say, or tossing a crumpled cigarette package to the sidewalk, the deed is monitored by local government officials based in control rooms who then bark a warning to the erring party to clean up their act, or else.

A dozen talking cameras have gone into service in Middlesbrough, and the Home Office — Britain’s interior department — is ecstatic.

Over past few weeks alone, it said, “fights have been broken up, litterers have sheepishly picked up their rubbish, and skateboarders have stopped rolling through traffic when told to do so” by the nearest loudspeaker.

In dealing with litterbugs, says Middlesbrough Council security manager Jack Bonnar, the talking cameras have “proven to be a 100 percent success.” Drunkenness and fighting are more difficult to address, he said, but even then, “the speakers are coming into their own, and we’re recording about a 65 percent to 70 percent success rate for those kinds of offenses.”

Officials said a verbal warning suffices most of the time. If it doesn’t, the videotape from the camera becomes evidence for arrest and prosecution.

So pleased is the government with the results of the Middlesbrough experiment that it will hang loudspeakers and microphones to CCTV cameras in another 20 designated trouble spots across the nation in the next few months.

Others argue that the whole business sounds like Big Brother, the sinister system in George Orwell’s novel “1984,” with its vision of talking screens being used to control the downtrodden populace around the clock.

“It’s just not right that Britain should become a society where some anonymous official in an invisible room can bark instructions to you,” said Simon Davies of the British-based civil rights organization Privacy International. “It is psychological warfare on the population.”

Some leaders in the opposition Conservative Party dismiss the government initiative as “scarecrow” policing, while 90 percent of real police officers sit at desks filling out government-ordained forms.

There also are suggestions that the brains behind the talking cameras don’t understand the nature of Britain’s hoodlums and hooligans, whose likely response to being told to pick up an errant burger bag or to cease throwing chairs through plate-glass windows is a rude gesture to the cameras.

Home Secretary John Reid is undeterred, either by concerns over naughty gestures or by accusations that the talking cameras are “Big Brother gone mad.”

Some folks are likely to be “concerned about what they claim are civil liberties intrusions,” Mr. Reid said, but “the vast majority of people find that their life is more upset by people who make their life misery in the inner cities because they can’t go out and feel safe.”

“What really upsets people,” the home secretary insists, “is their night out being destroyed or their environment being destroyed by a fairly small minority of people who get involved in drunk and disorderly behavior or gangs, or whatever.”

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